3 ISSUES FOR JUST £3 Subscribe to Lancashire Life today click here

Charles Waterson - The wild man of Stonyhurst

PUBLISHED: 12:42 05 July 2010 | UPDATED: 00:49 24 October 2015

Jan Graffius with one of the exhibits

Jan Graffius with one of the exhibits

A collection celebrating the life of an extraordinary man is coming home to Lancashire – bringing with it quite a tale. Roger Borrell reports

Just what do you do with a schoolboy who is disruptive, unruly and refuses to learn? The answer back in the late 1700s when applied to a ten-        year-old called Charles Waterton would cause consternation among modern educationalists.

‘They gave him a crossbow, a pack of hunting dogs and put him in charge of pest control. Basically, he was the rat killer,’ says Jan Graffius, curator of Lancashire’s Stonyhurst College.

Charles took his duties so seriously he seems to have single-handedly eradicated the fumart, or pine marten, from the Ribble Valley. So successful was he, that the fur of this unfortunate creature was used to make hats for his fellow pupils.

You would have expected such an upbringing to have produced an adult with an unhealthy interest in killing anything that moved. In fact, Charles grew up to be the David Attenborough of his day, albeit a rather more eccentric version. In fact, the television naturalist is a great admirer of Charles, who also inspired Darwin.

He was originally schooled in Liverpool where attempts to beat an education into him proved fruitless. In desperation, he was sent to Stonyhurst at Hurst Green to be taught by the Jesuits brothers.

They made a deep impression on him - but not with the cane. ‘They seemed to have seen something in him and realised he was no ordinary boy,’ says Jan.

‘Their treatment of him left Charles with a deep affection for the Jesuits.’

So deep, that for the rest of his days he returned to Stonyhurst to celebrate Christmas and he had a version of the school uniform made
so he could continue wearing it throughout his adulthood. This was,
you may be surprised to learn, one his least quirky traits.

After leaving school, Charles spent years studying wildlife while wandering through South America, especially in Guyana, where his family had an estate.

During that time he built up an extraordinary array of birds, mammals, reptiles and insects many of which came to Stonyhurst to form a highly impressive collection.

‘He was one of the first people to put forward the belief that man was put on earth to protect wildlife not to exploit and eat it,’

While the adult Charles built up a considerable following for his research, his strange behaviour often ruined his credibility in the scientific community. For instance, in the wild he often slept with his feet exposed in the hope he would be bitten by a vampire bat ‘to see what it would be like.’

Stranger still, his response to dull dinner parties was to scuttle around on all fours, barking like a dog and biting the ankles of his guests.
He also drew criticism for presenting what he claimed was a wild creature,
half man, half beast. He eventually had to admit it was made from a monkey’s bottom and bore a strong resemblance to a customs officer he’d argued with.

During his time in Guyana, he stunned native Indians by dragging
an 11ft cayman from a river and riding on its back. He refused to let them shoot it as it would spoil the creature for preservation and, instead, had its throat cut.

He became fascinated by the poison the Indians used on their hunting darts and, after acquiring a quantity, he set about a series of experiments. The most famous was when he used it to knock out a donkey. Because it worked by paralysing the lungs, he performed a tracheotomy and kept it alive using a pair of bellows. The donkey lived for another 30 years and Charles was credited with performing the first general anaesthetic.

The Waterton collection amounted to about 1,000 items - many still kept
in the cases Charles had made for the purpose. For the last 40 years it has been on loan to the museum in his birthplace of Wakefield, but over the next five years it will gradually return to Stonyhurst’s Tudor Long Room on permanent display.

Jan has begun the daunting task of restoring many of the items and, as
you can imagine, anything connected with this remarkable man is less than straightforward.

‘Taxidermy then was very rudimentary and the results didn’t look life-like,’ she says. ‘He devised a process using incredibly dangerous chemicals, which allowed animals to be modelled back into shape.’
The results are remarkably realistic and completely hollow. They also remain dangerous and Jan has to wear protective clothing and a face mask when she works on the collection.

It’s a job full of challenges for the curator. For instance, there is a tarantula which still has poisonous hairs on its back and a porcupine with razor-sharp quills.

While some regard Waterton as the first passionate ecologist it could have so different if a teacher at Stonyhurst hadn’t taken him to one side on the day he was due to leave. ‘We think you will be all right,’ he was told. ‘But you must never drink alcohol.’

He was a handful sober, once shinning up the lightning conductor above St Peter’s in Rome much to the annoyance of the Pope. Just imagine what he would have been like drunk!

Tales from the Long Room

Charles Waterton (1782-1865) was described by David Attenborough as ‘one of the first people anywhere to recognise not only that the natural world was of great importance but that it needed protection as humanity made more and more demands on it.’

His words are framed in the Long Room and hang beneath a new portrait of Charles by former student Helena Callinicos.

Stonyhurst and the Long Room are open to the public from July 26 to August 30, daily except Fridays, between 1pm and 4.30pm. The gardens are also open


More from People

Enthusiastic amateur musicians from Lancaster are celebrating a special anniversary with a series of concerts.

Read more
Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A 12-year-old from St Helens has gone the extra mile to say thank you to hospital staff for saving his baby brother’s life.

Read more
Monday, September 17, 2018

Former Westlife star Brian McFadden is loving his new life in the Lancashire countryside, writes Paul Mackenzie.

Read more
Friday, September 14, 2018

War stories from the Kay-Shuttleworth family history have gone on show at their ancestral home, Gawthorpe Hall

Read more
Thursday, September 13, 2018

Poet Yrsa Daley-Ward was born in Chorley to a Jamaican mother and a Nigerian father. She was brought up by devout Seventh Day Adventist grandparents and worked as a fashion model before moving into poetry. Her latest book, The Terrible, is a memoir about girlhood, femininity, family secrets, addiction, sexuality and mental health. She now lives in New York.

Read more
Monday, September 10, 2018

Making a television programme about the Lakes has re-affirmed Paul Rose’s deep affection for the area

Read more
Lake District

A fascinating look at the lives of Lancashire women in times past is now available to a worldwide audience.

Read more
Friday, September 7, 2018

A new awards scheme,supported by Lancashire Life, is designed to shine a light on our successful family businesses

Read more

Lancashire was the first county to support the There But Not There campaign. Tony Attard explains why

Read more
Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Lancashire’s High Sheriff talks to Olivia Assheton about the relevance of the role in the 21st century

Read more
Thursday, August 23, 2018

Wayne Hemingway kicks off our new series by recalling special family memories from around Morecambe Bay.

Read more
Monday, August 20, 2018

There have been a record-breaking number of entries for the Enterprise Vision Awards and voting starts this month

Read more
Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Home Reach has helped many people realise their dreams and own the home they want and need.

Read more
Thursday, August 2, 2018

A Lancashire couple sold up their home and their business so their sons could become farmers

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Subscribe or buy a mag today

Local Business Directory

Property Search